Journalists Demand Police Protect Reporters at George Floyd Protests

June 4, 2020 Updated: June 4, 2020

Journalists are urging state and law enforcement officials to prevent attacks on the press, following reports of reporters being shot at, pepper-sprayed, manhandled, and arrested while covering the George Floyd protests.

Reporter groups and individual journalists are taking action to demand that police officers stop targeting members of the press, who are credentialed and identifiable, and to hold officers accountable for any alleged misconduct.

One reporter, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, has taken his fight to a federal court by filing a class-action lawsuit alleging that the “extraordinary escalation of unlawful force deliberately targeting reporters” by police officers violates the U.S. Constitution.

“It violates the sacrosanct right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press that form the linchpin of a free society. It constitutes a pattern of unreasonable force and unlawful seizures under the Fourth Amendment. And it deprives liberty without a modicum of due process protected by the Fourteenth Amendment,” the lawsuit states.

In the past several days, dozens of journalists reported that they were assaulted, targeted by rubber bullets, have seen their equipment damaged, and been pepper-sprayed even after they have identified themselves as members of the press to the officers.

In one instance, a reporter from VICE News who was covering the protests in Minneapolis, said he was forced onto the ground and pepper-sprayed in the face even though he repeatedly said “press.” In addition, he held up his hands and press ID.

Similarly, on May 29, a CNN reporter, a producer, and camera crew were arrested live on air while covering the protest in Minnesota.

According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a nonprofit project, there were more than 279 complaints of press freedom incidents between May 26 and June 3, including over 45 arrests and 149 assaults by police. Among the assaults are 42 physical attacks by police, 40 incidents involving tear gas, and 69 reports of the use of rubber bullets or projectiles.

The Australian government on June 2 called for an investigation into the apparent assault of an Australian news crew who were covering the protests near the White House a day earlier. The U.S. Park Police said it placed two officers on administrative leave and that the attack was being investigated.

In reaction to the CNN crew arrests, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz apologized to the network, saying that there was “absolutely no reason that something like this should happen.”

“We have got to ensure that there is a safe spot for journalism to tell this story,” Walz said during a news conference.

A reporters group, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, sent a letter to officials in Minnesota on June 2 to call on Minnesota officials and law enforcement to take “concrete steps to end the series of police arrests and attacks” on reporters. The letter was co-signed by 115 media and press freedom organizations.

“Law enforcement officers do not have legal immunity when they violate clearly established rights under the First Amendment,” the committee wrote in its letter (pdf). “While we understand the challenges that officers face in policing during times of civil protest—challenges that journalists face as well in covering these incidents—the bedrock American ideal of a free press demands that we protect First Amendments rights even more zealously in moments of crisis.”

A police officer shouts at Associated Press videojournalist Robert Bumsted
A police officer shouts at Associated Press videojournalist Robert Bumsted, in New York City on June 2, 2020. (Wong Maye-E/AP Photo)

The committee also urged the officials to take steps aimed at protecting reporters and ensuring the police officers don’t indiscriminately target journalists who are covering the protests.

Meanwhile, members of law enforcement have also reported many cases of assaults and attacks during the widespread protests. A federal law enforcement officer identified as Patrick Underwood was killed at a courthouse in Oakland, California, while a protest occurred outside the building.

Meanwhile, a Las Vegas police officer is in a critical condition after being shot in the head on June 1 during a protest. A 20-year-old suspect was taken into custody and charged with attempted murder.

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